Break out your Ben Simmons hand trackers—the NBA is back. We’re counting down the days until the 2018-19 season tips off on October 16 by taking a hard look at the floor and ceiling of every team in the league. This year, each Best Case, Worst Case capsule is also accompanied by The Ringer’s preseason ranking, our staff’s best guess about where that team will finish this season. We look forward to your emotionless, considered responses.
Ringer Preseason Ranking: 27
Last Season: 27-55
Notable Additions: Jabari Parker (free agency), Wendell Carter Jr. (draft), Chandler Hutchison (draft)
Notable Subtractions: Jerian Grant (trade), David Nwaba (free agency)
Vegas Over/Under: 27.5
Team MVP: Kris Dunn
Best-Case Scenario: Chicago’s young pieces click on offense, and it looks like a team of the future in the Eastern Conference.
There are few players in the NBA with more responsibility this season than Kris Dunn. The third-year point guard has to maximize a roster that doesn’t quite make sense on paper. It’s a much different challenge than what he faced last season, when he resurrected his career after a miserable rookie campaign in Minnesota. Dunn, a ball-dominant guard with a shaky jumper, needs a big role in the offense to be successful, which he got on a rebuilding team playing for ping-pong balls.
But the Bulls aren’t tanking this season. The team is shooting for the playoffs after giving $20 million annual salaries to Zach LaVine and Jabari Parker. Dunn has to make sure they are happy before he can worry about his own stats. He will have a simple mandate from Chicago head coach Fred Hoiberg: push the pace, get to the rim, and kick the ball out to LaVine and Parker for open 3s. He needs to become a more consistent outside shooter after shooting only 32.1 percent from 3 on 2.6 attempts per game last season, but he can’t fall in love with that shot, either. Dunn is the only Bulls player who can get into the teeth of the defense and create shots for others.
He is just as important to their defense. An elite athlete at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds with a 6-foot-9 wingspan, Dunn has the physical tools to guard players at all three perimeter positions. Hoiberg may have to scramble defensive assignments on a nightly basis so that he can put Dunn on the opponent’s primary perimeter scorer, regardless of position. LaVine and Parker are two of the worst defenders in the NBA, and Chicago doesn’t have many answers on their bench, either. Dunn is one of its only two-way players.
The Bulls don’t have anyone who can replace him. His backup is Cameron Payne, an unproven fourth-year guard who played in only 25 games last season. Their second-best passer might be Wendell Carter Jr., the 19-year-old center they took with the no. 7 overall pick in this year’s draft, and he probably won’t have a big role as a rookie. Everything in Chicago revolves around Dunn. In order for them to have a good season, he will need to become a bigger and better version of Eric Bledsoe, an elite defensive guard who gets to the rim at will.
Worst-Case Scenario: Dunn cracks under the pressure, the Bulls’ locker room splinters, and Hoiberg loses control of the team—and his job.
Dunn is playing for his future. He’s up for an extension on his rookie contract next summer, and it’s unclear whether his ideal role is as a primary ball handler or a defensive spark plug. Putting up good stats on a bad team, like Dunn did last season, doesn’t tell us all that much. His numbers may have improved from Year 1 to Year 2, but his efficacy did not. He was no. 57 in true shooting percentage (48.8 percent) among the 60 players in the NBA who played at least half the season with a usage rate higher than 24. He has to be much more efficient offensively for Chicago to win.
He also has to adjust his game because LaVine and Parker won’t be as willing to take a back seat as Justin Holiday and Denzel Valentine, who spotted up off Dunn and allowed him to dominate the ball. Dunn’s play tailed off last season after LaVine returned from an ACL injury. The two had no chemistry together. The Bulls’ net rating with Dunn went from minus-6.5 in 1,216 minutes without LaVine to minus-19.1 in 308 minutes with him. He has to be able to space the floor for both LaVine and Parker, or the offense will fall apart.
The other issue is that Dunn just watched LaVine and Parker earn massive contracts by jacking up shots. Hoiberg may tell Dunn that he needs to sacrifice his own offense, but actions speak louder than words. Dunn wasn’t the only one watching, either. Valentine and Bobby Portis are also up for extensions on their rookie deals next summer, while second-year big man Lauri Markkanen will want the ball more often after a rookie season when he looked like a future star.
There are a lot of land mines for Hoiberg to defuse, and he isn’t known for his ability to command respect in the locker room. Butler openly undermined him during his time in Chicago. The two players to watch in that regard are Parker, who blasted his coaches in Milwaukee during the playoffs last season, and Portis, who broke the jaw of a guy (Nikola Mirotic) he was competing with for playing time in training camp. Winning covers up a lot of issues, so the Bulls need to get out to a fast start. It’s hard to get guys to sacrifice when the team is losing.
TL; DR: The Bulls have a lot of offensive talent, but that won’t mean anything if they don’t play together.